10 Things You Didn’t Know About The First Christmas

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10 Things You Didn’t Know About The First Christmas



‘Tis the season that carolers sing, decorations are hung, Nativity scenes are set up, and Christmas cards begin flooding our mailboxes, each with a different scene from “The First Noel.” You might be shocked, however, to discover that many of the details you’ve come to believe about history’s first Christmas are completely inaccurate. The Christmas carols and card companies have it all wrong. To put you in a festive mood (as well as to correct a few historical misunderstandings) here are ten things you probably didn’t know about the first Christmas.

10It Didn’t Happen In December

Israeli Sheep
Jesus probably wasn’t born on December 25. In fact, He probably wasn’t born in December at all. The Bible mentions shepherds keeping watch over their flocks in the fields. December in Israel would have been cold; the fields would have been unproductive, and the sheep were probably corralled. Shepherds usually kept their flocks in the fields during the spring lambing season.

So how did Christmas come to be associated with December 25? The earliest recorded estimates dating the birth of Christ come from Clement of Alexandria (circa AD 200). He mentioned different groups who identified the date of Jesus’s birth as March 21, April 15, April 21, or May 20. The first mention of December 25 as Jesus’s birthday wasn’t until the mid–fourth century, when a Roman almanac listed December 25 as natus Christus in Betleem Judeae, or, “Christ was born in Bethlehem of Judea.”

A popular theory about the origin of Christmas is that early Christians stole the date from a Roman Sun festival, which was held in late December. It’s suggested that this was a deliberate attempt to spread Christmas and Christianity throughout the Roman Empire. This theory has numerous problems, though, as early Christian writers such as Irenaeus and Tertullian make no mention of this, and Origen of Alexandria openly mocks Roman celebrations of birth anniversaries. It has been proposed that December 25, a time of pagan feasts, wasn’t deliberately chosen until the 12th century. While this theory popular on social media, scholars today recognize serious problems with it.

The question remains: Why December 25? Tertullian recorded a calculation that date of Jesus’s birth was March 25. This was later celebrated as a feast commemorating Jesus’s conception, as opposed to His birth. Further, it was suggested that Jesus died on March 25, which led to the belief that He was conceived and crucified on the same day of the year. December 25 is obviously nine months after March 25, so it was taken as Jesus’s birthday.

The truth is that December 25 came from celebrations in the early Church, not from pagan celebrations. Many scholars today believe that Jesus wasn’t even born in December.

9There Wasn’t An Inn

Old Israeli Building
We’ve all heard the story about there being “no room at the inn.” Indeed, this is what our English Bibles say. But in the original Greek (the language in which the New Testament was written), the word kataluma, translated as “inn,” doesn’t necessarily mean a motel. It’s only used a few times in the Bible, and elsewhere, it means “upper room” or “guest room.” The famous Last Supper took place in a kataluma. In fact, there’s a different Greek word for “inn” that does mean a motel or paid lodging, but it isn’t used, though the same gospel writer uses it in the story of the Good Samaritan a few chapters later.

First-century homes often had a main room on the ground floor, where the family lived, and an “upper room” or “guest room,” where people who needed lodging could stay. It was a great shame in the Middle East to refuse hospitality to someone in need. There is a good chance that if there was no room in the “guest room,” it’s because it was already occupied.

This changes the whole story we’ve come to celebrate. Rather than arriving in Bethlehem only to find the local motel with no vacancy, Mary and Joseph arrived in Bethlehem and sought lodging at a family member’s house. This would be a natural thing to do in Middle Eastern culture. Because people were returning to their ancestral homes for the census, other family members had already arrived and were occupying the guest room.

So where did Mary and Joseph stay?

8There Wasn’t A Stable

There’s no mention of a stable in the Bible’s stories of the first Christmas. A stable is assumed because we’re told that they “laid him in a manger.” (A manger is an animal’s feeding trough.) If there was a manger, it must have been in a stable (or perhaps a cave) where the animals stayed, right? Probably not.

As previously mentioned, there’s a good chance that Mary and Joseph arrived in Bethlehem, Joseph’s hometown, and sought lodging at a family member’s house. The guest room was full, but it would have been a great shame to turn away someone in need, especially a relative with a pregnant wife. Many families had mangers inside their homes, where young animals would be safe and warm. Some of them were built into the floor of the of peasant homes or occupied a small room on the main floor.

Since the guest room was full, Mary and Joseph were likely offered the manger, and it was there that the mother of Jesus gave birth. Rather than being turned away by a crusty old innkeeper and given lodging in a dirty barn, Mary and Joseph were probably in a relative’s home, surrounded by loved ones, when Jesus was born and laid in a manger.

7Mary Didn’t Give Birth The Night She Arrived

In our Western reading of the Christmas story, we get the impression that Mary and Joseph made it to Bethlehem just in a nick of time and that Mary gave birth that very night. The truth is probably far less dramatic.

The actual account of the first Christmas reads, “And it came to pass, that when they were there, her days were accomplished, that she should be delivered. And she brought forth her firstborn son.” The phrase “that her days were accomplished” is linked to “when they were there.” This implies that they had been there for a period of time before she gave birth.

Just as Rome wasn’t built in a day, a Roman census wasn’t completed in a day. There would have had to have been time for all members of a family to travel the distance required for them to return to their ancestral homes to be counted. There would have been lines and waiting, not unlike our present-day elections. The reality is that Mary and Joseph were likely in Bethlehem for an extended period of time, both before and after she gave birth.

6The Wise Men Didn’t Arrive The Night Jesus Was Born

The three wise men are a staple in almost every Nativity scene, each carrying a gift for the newborn king. Standing beside the shepherds, Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus, they complete the story of the first Christmas. Or do they?

The Biblical account says, “And entering into the house, they found the childwith Mary his mother.” Notice two things about this statement: First, the wise men found the family in a house, not a stable. Quite possibly, they were still living with their family in Bethlehem at the time or in a house that they had since rented. Second, they found a “child.” The Greek word used ispaidion, which means “toddler,” not brephos, or “baby,” as in Luke 2:16.

It’s also worth noting that after the wise men deceived King Herod by returning a different way, he had all of the children in the vicinity who were two years old and younger slaughtered. These facts point to Jesus being a toddler and the wise men having visited him one or two years after his birth.

5The Shepherds Didn’t Follow The Star

Many think of the shepherds as old men cradling lambs and standing in a stable with the star shining above, having just heard the angels sing. Many believe that the shepherds followed the star to find the baby in a manger. This is but another traditional myth that has come to be associated with the first Christmas.

The misconception developed by the blending of two separate stories (the shepherds and the wise men) which occurred at different times. There probably wasn’t a star hanging over Bethlehem the night Jesus was born, as it didn’t lead the wise men there for two years. The shepherds were said to have been directed by the angel to find the child by following two signs: “You shall find the infant wrapped in swaddling clothes, and laid in a manger.” Using these two clues, the shepherds went in search of the newborn king.

How would the shepherds found a newborn baby in a town the size of Bethlehem? The answer is surprisingly simple. Much like today, births in the first century were a big deal. If Mary gave birth in the home of one of Joseph’s relatives, surrounded by family, the house would have been filled with much rejoicing. The shepherds were no doubt guided by the infant’s cries and happy sounds of celebration.

4There Weren’t Three Wise Men

More Than Three Wise Men
We’ve come to know them as Gaspar, Melchior, and Balthasar, the three wise men from the East who supposedly traveled by camel following the star. But were there really only three of them? In truth, these three names weren’t added to the story until the seventh century in the earliest Latin records.

Three gifts are mentioned in the Christmas story: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Nowhere is the number of wise men recorded. It’s assumed that each wise man brought a gift, and thus, there must have been three wise men. In reality, there may have been more who came to worship the baby.

Early Christian art is inconsistent as to the number of wise men. A painting in the cemetery of Saints Peter and Marcellinus displays two wise men, while one in the cemetery of Domitilla shows four. A vase in the Kircher Museum has eight wise men, and Asian tradition says there were twelve. The truth is that the number of wise men who visited the infant king simply isn’t known, and there is no compelling reason, aside from the number of gifts, to believe that there were three.

3The Wise Men Weren’t Kings

Educated Biblical Man
“We three kings of orient” is sung each Christmas to celebrate the journey of the wise men. Were they really kings?

The Greek word used in Matthew 2:1 is magos. The word is primarily used to denote a member of a group of priests or wise men among the Medes, Persians, and Babylonians. They were educated men, whose study included astronomy, astrology, and enchantment. It is sometimes translated as “wise man,” sometimes as “magician.” The Greek translation of the Old Testament uses the same word in the book of Daniel, where it describes that Daniel was made the “chief of the magicians.”

This fits well with the Christmas story, where we’re told that the wise men “saw his star in the east” and came to worship the baby. Magoi studied the stars and saw meaning in the celestial object that dominated the night sky at that time. Rather than being kings, it seems more likely that the wise men were educated astronomers from the East.

2Mary And Joseph Were Married When Jesus Was Born

Mary and Joseph
Part of the scandal surrounding the birth of Jesus was undoubtedly the claim of Mary’s immaculate conception. It was this that even led Joseph to initially decide to quietly divorce her, rather than have her stoned to death for adultery as the law said. Here was an unwed mother, pregnant in a first-century religious community.

However, it’s not quite as cut and dry as that. Joseph and Mary were “betrothed,” or engaged, when they find out that Mary was pregnant. It’s likely that they had signed a Jewish engagement contract called a ketubbah. This was much more legally binding than our modern engagements and could only be broken by a divorce.

Furthermore, after seeing a vision of an angel in a dream, Joseph got up “and took unto him his wife.” So, in view of the average Jewish person in the first century, they were technically married, although they hadn’t consummated their marriage.

1The Christmas Star May Have Been A Planetary Conjunction

Bright Planet
There are a number of fascinating features about the star that guided the wise men. It is said to have risen “in the east,” to have “appeared” at a specific time, to have gone “before them,” and to have “stopped” over Bethlehem.

Taken together, these characteristics cannot possibly describe a star, but they do describe planets, known as “wandering stars” to the ancients. They rise in the eastern sky, travel through the fixed field of stars, and are governed by the planetary laws of motion, which make them appear at certain times and not others. Moreover, they can even appear to stop when they enter their retrograde motion phase.

There is evidence that Herod the Great died in 1 BC, not 4 BC as previously thought. During the fall of 2 BC, an amazing planetary conjunction between Jupiter and the star Regulus would have resulted in one of the brightest objects that people at that time had ever seen. It’s interesting to note that Jupiter is named after the greatest god of Roman mythology, and Regulus means “regal” or “kingly.” This symbolism would not have been lost on the magi (aka astronomers) who decided to follow it.

By running computer simulations, we can discover the exact day that Jupiter went into its retrograde motion and appeared to stop. That day wasDecember 25, 2 BC. To the wise men gazing at Jupiter from Jerusalem, it would have appeared to be over the little town of Bethlehem. So, December 25 may not have been the day Jesus was born, but rather the day that the wise men came to give him gifts.


10 Strange And Mysterious Islands

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10 Strange And Mysterious Islands



Most of the world’s islands are well-explored, their secrets learned long ago, but a few remain mysterious. Islands shown on maps for centuries suddenly appear to vanish. Dangerous, top secret facilities on remote islands are abandoned or destroyed. Sometimes, islands behave in ways seemingly inexplicable to those who discover or study them. An island seems to appear as if by magic, leaving experts to wonder what created it and how.

Islands all but completely cut off from the rest of the world produce flora that are not only unique but also look as though they could grow only on an alien world. Other islands are mysterious because of their inhabitants’ origin or fate. All of these ten strange and mysterious islands are truly amazing for these reasons and more.

10Isla Bermeja, The Lost Island

Photo credit: Henry S. Tanner

On maps dating as far back as the 1700s, Isla Bermeja was shown off the Yucatan Peninsula’s coast, at a greater distance than any other island claimed by Mexico. The island was just what the country needed to extend its claim on offshore oil and stop the United States’ encroachment on Mexico’s interests in that department. There was just one problem: A 2009 National Autonomous University of Mexico study concluded the island doesn’t exist—at least not where it’s supposed to be. The search team, using underwater sensing devices and aerial reconnaissance assets, couldn’t find the island anywhere in the area in which maps indicated it should be.

The island is supposed to lie 55 nautical miles farther than Mexico’s 200-nautical-mile territorial limit. By claiming it, Mexico would extend its oil claims into the middle of the Gulf. Although the lost island wasn’t found, Elias Cardenas, the head of Mexico’s congressional Maritime Committee, planned to continue his country’s search for it, hoping it might turn up elsewhere. Perhaps the island had sunk or submerged, he said.

Mexican conspiracy theorists had their own ideas about what happened to Isla Bermeja. Maybe the US bombed it, or it could have been a victim of global warming or an earthquake. Cardenas is certain that bombing didn’t account for the mysterious island’s disappearance. “That would have been [ . . . ] very noticeable,” he said.

The elusive island was first reported missing in 1997, when a Navy fishing expedition was unable to find it. Until it disappeared, Isla Bermeja, which supposedly measured 80 square kilometers (31 mi2), had been the point from which Mexico’s 200 nautical-mile limit started. Currently, the Alacranes islands have determined the end of the country’s territorial limits. As a result, Mexico’s “economic zone” has been “sharply reduced.

9Vozrozhdeniya Island

Photo credit: Amusing Planet

During the 1920s, Soviet Union officials were seeking a location with specific attributes. It had to be isolated, it had to be surrounded by desert, and it had to be within the borders of the Soviet empire. Two islands fit the bill. The Soviets chose Vozrozhdeniya, situated in the Aral Sea. There, a top secret biological weapons laboratory was constructed, where the plague, anthrax, smallpox, brucellosis, tularemia, botulinum, and Venezuelan equine encephalitis pathogens were genetically modified to resist medical treatment.

Gennadi Lepyoshkin, physician, microbiologist, and Soviet Army colonel, spent 18 years of his career on the island, where, in a year’s time, he said as many as 300 monkeys would be caged on a range, next to instruments that measured the concentrations of pathogens in the air. Following the monkeys’ exposure to the germs, they’d be taken to labs, where their bloodwas tested, and the progression of the diseases in their bodies would be monitored. “They would die within weeks, and we would perform autopsies,” Lepyoshkin said. The 1,500 people involved in the project not only worked on the island but lived there as well in the only town, Kantubek, which provided “a social club, a stadium, a couple of schools and shops,” Lepyoshkin said. It was a “beautiful” place, where workers could swim in the Aral Sea or sunbathe on its shore.

As the Aral Sea dried up, the island simply became part of the surrounding desert, and today, Kantubek lies in ruins, having been looted after it was abandoned by the Soviet Union. Scientists don’t believe the biological weapons laboratory poses much of a threat anymore. All the pathogens except anthrax, which can survive for centuries, have been destroyed by the area’s high temperatures and harsh conditions.

When they left, the Soviets buried the laboratory’s anthrax spores to conceal the project’s violation of the 1972 treaty banning biological weapons. In the 21st century, US and Uzbek officials visited the site, burning warehouses that contained “remains of the previous experiments.” US Defense Department officials believe the anthrax spores have been destroyed, although no one can know for certain that such is the case.

8Bannerman Island

Photo credit: Antony-22

Bannerman Island, in the Hudson River, is a half-hour boat ride from New York City. There’s no other way to get there. Visitors to the mysterious island are likely to wonder why there’s a castle on it. The edifice was built by Frank Bannerman VI, who made a fortune by reselling surplus military equipment he bought at government auctions at the end of the US Civil War.

He was in need of a place to store the huge quantities of black powder he’d purchased, along with other surplus items, when his son, David, mentioned Pollopel Island. Bannerman bought it in 1900, built a large arsenal there the next spring, and constructed a small castle atop the island, next to the arsenal, as his home, renaming the island after himself.

When Bannerman died in 1918, construction ceased. The ferryboat was destroyed in a storm in 1950, and the island was abandoned. On August 8, 1969, a fire gutted the arsenal, and New York state, which had bought Bannerman Island and its buildings in 1967, declared the island off-limits. It reopened in 2017, and tour guides now recount the island’s mysterious history to curious visitors.

7Earthquake Island

Photo credit: NASA

The powerful earthquake that killed 39 people and toppled homes in Pakistan in September 2013 also created an island. According to Pakistan’s chief meteorologist, Mohammed Riaz, it was magnitude 7.7, while the US Geological Survey in Colorado claimed it was magnitude 7.8.

The island didn’t exist before the earthquake, but after the event, the Pakistan Meteorological Department’s director general, Arif Mahmood, said locals reported witnessing the creation of the tiny island, measuring 100 meters (330 ft) in length and 9 meters (30 ft) high, near the port of Gwadar. Pakistani officials said it was possible that the earthquake buckled land under the sea, creating the island, but further investigation would be conducted to determine the cause.

6Magic Island

Astronomers spied a mysterious anomaly while analyzing data from NASA’sCassini probe photographing Saturn and its moons. Comparing older photos to the most current ones to see whether there were any changes, Jason Hofgartner, a planetary scientist at Cornell University, and his colleagues spotted what they dubbed a “magic island,” in one of Titan’s seas. The island was approximately 20 kilometers (12 mi) by 10 kilometers (6 mi).

While it’s possible that the “island” is nothing more than waves caused by winds that have strengthened enough to produce such effects or bubbles from gases rising from the seafloor, it’s also possible that the apparent mass actually is an island of sorts: It could be “solids becoming buoyant with the onset of warmer temperatures and floating on the surface, or solids that are neither sunken nor floating, but rather suspended in the sea like silt in a delta on Earth,” according to Hofgartner. To determine for sure what’s going on, NASA plans to “put a boat or raft on Titan’s seas” to better study the moon and its seas.

5Floating Eye Island

Photo credit: Elojo Project

Located in the Parana Delta, between the cities of Campana and Zarate in Buenos Aires Province in Argentina, is an island shaped like a nearly perfect circle with a diameter of 120 meters (390 ft). It is surrounded by a channel that also forms a nearly perfect circle. Thanks to the presence of the round land mass inside it, the channel looks much like a crescent moon. Together, the island and channel resemble an eye, an appearance that suggested the island’s nickname. “The Eye” floats; it also rotates on its own axis, film director director Sergio Neuspiller said. The filmmaker discovered the Eye in 2016, while he was scouting locations for a science fiction movie.

Having made the astonishing discovery of the mysterious island, Neuspiller and his crew, including Richard Petroni, a hydraulic and civil engineer from New York who’s become involved in the project, decided to make a crowd-funded documentary about the Eye, instead of filming the science fiction movie Neuspiller had originally intended to make.

4Socotra Island

Photo credit: Reuters/Alistair Lyon

Socotra Island, off the coast of Yemen, looks for all the world like an alien planet. Its endangered flora is unique due to the remote location’s isolation, temperature extremes, and arid conditions. A third of its plant life can be found nowhere else on Earth. Fortunately, 70 percent of the island has been set aside as a national park.

Some of the plants look like turnips planted upside down. The branches of another, the crimson sap of which has earned it the name Dragon’s Blood Tree, are devoid of leaves, except at their tips, which makes it look as though the branches are the tree’s roots and the tree is growing upside down. Thestrange tree is used for its supposed medicinal value, to produce fabric dye, to make incense, and to stain wood. The island’s bottle tree, adapted to store water in a dry climate, has a thick trunk, and its few limbs, thick near the trunk, give rise to clusters of much thinner branches ending in thick clumps of green leaves.

Surrounded by turquoise water, the island features huge limestone caves, homes to bats, the only mammal native to Socotra. Messages in a variety of languages have been carved into the caves’ walls. Researchers attribute them to sailors who stayed on the island between AD 1 and 6. The residents of the mysterious island are also unique: They all have a DNA haplogroup possessed by no other people on Earth, and some contend that the Garden of Eden was originally located on Socotra. In 2008, the UNESCO named Socotra a World Heritage Site.

3Diego Garcia

Photo credit: NASA

The vaguely U-shaped, 44-square-kilometer (17 mi2) atoll in the Indian Ocean known as Diego Garcia has thick, tropical jungles and white sand beaches. It was home to 2,000 native Chagossians, until the British government forcibly relocated them between 1968 and 1973 so that the US could build a naval base there in exchange for Britain’s agreement to lease the island, which is of strategic importance because it’s located between East Africa, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia, allowing the US to strike locations in both Asia and the Middle East.

Diego Garcia was used to stage air support operations during the 1991 Gulf War, the 2001 Afghanistan war, and the 2003 Iraq war. The remote, restricted island, some contend, is also the site of a secret US prison camp, although American authorities deny the truth of such speculations.

2Partridge Island

Photo credit: Fralambert

Canada’s Partridge Island, located off the coast of Saint John Harbour, New Brunswick, became a quarantine station in 1830. Immigrants stayed there, upon their arrival in Canada, to ensure that they didn’t spread shipboard diseases to Canadian citizens. Thousands of immigrants came to Canada during 1847’s Great Famine, and 2,500 Irish immigrants were quarantined on Partridge Island.

The diseases against which the quarantine guarded from spreading included cholera, typhus, smallpox, scarlet fever, yellow fever, and measles. Newly arrived immigrants were subjected to kerosene showers followed by showers in hot water. Many were sick, and Partridge Island couldn’t handle the huge numbers who came to Canada during the peak of the Irish Potato Famine. The influx of thousands of Irish earned the island the nickname “Canada’s Emerald Isle.”

Quarantined immigrants who died of disease were buried on the island, on one occasion in a mass grave, the grass over which was rumored to be of a more intense green than the surrounding lawn because the bones of the dead had nourished it. Closed in 1941, Partridge Island became a mysterious place “visited” only through photographs.

1Easter Island

Hoping Easter Island would give up its answer to their question as to how islanders had once lived there, farming thousands of miles from any continent, a team of researchers from the University of California at Santa Cruz used paleogenomic research to determine the genetic history of the Rapa Nui, as Easter Island’s lost people are known.

It was believed the Rapa Nui interbred with South Americans well before Europeans arrived on Easter Island in 1772, but to the surprise of the UC Santa Cruz team, the materials from museums they tested indicated no contact between the Rapa Nui and South Americans before the arrival of Europeans, which earlier studies had, making the team’s finding somewhatcontroversial. If the results of their research prove to be correct, it’s clear that the Rapa Nui didn’t have help from South Americans in creating and moving the island’s heavy moai. Unaided, the Rapa Nui carved and moved them themselves.

Raiders who kidnapped Rapa Nui to sell as slaves reduced their population from thousands to barely more than 100, and infighting and disease wiped out the rest, leaving their origin and, until recently, the creation of their statues, secrets as mysterious as the island itself.

Puerto Rico: Geography, History and Other Facts

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Puerto Rico: Geography, History and Other Facts

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Friendly Latina Twins in Colorful, Natural Setting royalty-free stock photo
Puerto Rico: Geography, History and Other Facts

The Castillo San Felipe del Morro is a 16th-century fortress in San Juan, Puerto Rico.

Credit: Brittany Mason/Shutterstock

Puerto Rico is an archipelago in the Caribbean Sea consisting of a main island and a handful of smaller ones. It is part of the Greater Antilles, a grouping of the larger islands in the Caribbean. Its location has made Puerto Rico an important and strategic port for centuries.


It has also made the island a target for hurricanes. The most recent storm, Hurricane Maria, struck on Sept. 20, 2017. The Category 4 storm caused catastrophic damage only two weeks after the Category 5 Hurricane Irma skirted the island and crippled much of its infrastructure.

Politically, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico is an unincorporated U.S. territory. Its people are U.S. citizens but they don’t have some of the rights other Americans have, such as the right to vote for president.


Puerto Rico lies in the tropical region at a latitude of 18.25 degrees. The climate is consistent throughout the year with an average temperature of 79 degrees Fahrenheit (26 degrees Celsius), according to the U.S. Geological Survey. The wet season lasts from May through October, although rain tends to fall year-round. August tends to be the wettest month on average and is also the start of hurricane season.

Puerto Rico's El Morro Fort

The average rainfall in the northern part of the island is about 61 inches (155 centimeters) and the southern part of the island is about 36 inches (91.4 cm). Some coastal regions receive up to 150 inches (381 cm) of rain per year, while the mountains register around 200 inches (508 cm).

Puerto Rico has been hit by several powerful hurricanes, including the devastating Hurricane Maria. Hurricane Maria knocked out power and communications on the entire island, destroyed many structures and roads, unleashed flash floods and wiped out most of the island’sagriculture. It is estimated that it will take several months to restore power to the island.

The most destructive hurricane on record in Puerto Rico is Hurricane San Ciriaco, according to the Hispanic American Historical Review. The hurricane, which made landfall in Aug. 8, 1899, is still on record as the longest-lived Atlantic hurricane, at nearly 28 days. The hurricane destroyed about 250,000 homes, nearly all the crops, and left the majority of the population without access to food or clean water. Nearly 3,400 people lost their lives.

Puerto Rico consists of the main island and several smaller islands, including Mona to the west, and Vieques and Culebra to the east.

Puerto Rico consists of the main island and several smaller islands, including Mona to the west, and Vieques and Culebra to the east.

Credit: Google

The main island of Puerto Rico is about 110 miles (177 km) long (west to east) and 35 miles (56.3 km) wide (north to south), and covers 3,515 square miles (9,104 square km) — slightly less than three times the size of Rhode Island, according to the Central Intelligence Agency. It is also almost twice the size of Delaware.

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Several small offshore islands are part of Puerto Rico, but only two are inhabited year-round: Vieques and Culebra. Vieques lies about 7 miles (11.3 km) east of the main island and is approximately 21 miles (33.8 km) long by 4 miles (6.4 km) wide. About 9 miles north of Vieques is Culebra, which is approximately 7 miles (11.3 km) by 5 miles (8 km). The island of Mona lies 41 miles (66 km) west of the main island. It is only 7 miles by 4 miles (11 by 7 km) and is a protected nature preserve. The nearby Mona Passage is a key shipping lane to the Panama Canal, according to the CIA.

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Puerto Rico is surrounded by some very deep waters, including the Puerto Rico Trench, which is the deepest trench in the Atlantic Ocean, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). ThePuerto Rico Trench is 497 miles (800 km) long with a maximum depth of 26,247 feet (8,000 m) at Milwaukee Deep. For comparison, the average depth of the Atlantic Ocean (not including adjacent seas) is 12,881 feet (3,926 m). The trench is part of a subduction zone between the Caribbean and North American tectonic plates.

The region is very active seismically — an average of five earthquakes with a magnitude greater than 1.5 occur near Puerto Rico every day. The shocks occur because the North American plate is drifting westward relative to the Caribbean plate at about three-quarters of an inch (2 cm) per year, according to the NOAA. The uplifting of a tectonic plate due to a large shift formed the island, as well as the other islands in the area.

Río Camuy in the northern part of the island is part of the third largest subterranean river and cave system in the world. The caves were discovered in 1958, and 16 passages have been found and over 7 miles have been explored. The largest cave is Cueva Clara, which is 695 feet (211 km) long.

Puerto Rico is a very diverse region, with a mountain range, coastal plains, a desert and a rainforest. The main mountain range is known as LaCordillera Central, and runs east-west across the center of the island. The highest point on the island is Cerro de Punta, at 4,389 feet (1,338 m).

The coquí, a small tree frog, is the national mascot of Puerto Rico.

The coquí, a small tree frog, is the national mascot of Puerto Rico.

Credit: RodJen/Shutterstock

The El Yunque rainforest lies in the eastern part of the island at the highest elevations of the 28,000-acre Yunque National Forest, which is part of theU.S. Forest System. It is the only rainforest that is protected in the United States. Although the rainforest is one of the smallest protected regions, it is one of the most diverse.

It rains four times a day in the rainforest, according to El Boricua magazine. Annual rainfall is about 240 inches (610 cm), which translates to over 100 billion gallons of water. The temperature underneath the canopy stays around 73 F (22.8 C) year-round. These conditions are perfect for many types of plants and trees to thrive. There are thousands of native plants and trees, including at least 240 species of trees (with 23 known to exist only in this forest), 150 species of fern, 50 species of orchids and many species of vines and mosses.

No large animals reside in the rainforest, but countless small animals do. These include 50 species of birds (including the endangered Puerto Rican parrot), 11 species of bats, eight species of lizards and 13 species of thecoquí frog, the national mascot. There are also many types of snakes, insects and rodents.

The driest place on the island, on the other hand, is a desert-like forest known as Guanica Biosphere Reserve and State Forest, in the southwest region. Only about 30 inches (76.2 cm) of rain fall per year. The Cordillera Central mountain range blocks most of the rain systems in a phenomenon known as a rain shadow. The nearly 10,000-acre forest has been protected since 1919 and was declared a UNESCO International Biosphere Reserve in 1981.

There are at least 700 species of plants in the Guanica Reserve, including 48 endangered plants and 16 that are endemic to the region, including the gumbo limbo tree and the guayacán tree. The largest variety of birds on the island, at least 185 species, lives in the reserve. That includes most of the 16 species native to Puerto Rico, such as the Puerto Rican woodpecker and the endangered Puerto Rican nightjar. There are also countless reptiles and amphibians within the reserve, including the national coquí frog.

San Juan is the capital of Puerto Rico and the largest city on the island.

San Juan is the capital of Puerto Rico and the largest city on the island.

Credit: fitzcrittle/Shutterstock

Puerto Rico, originally known as Borikén (“land of the brave lord”), was originally inhabited by the Taino tribe. The Taino people were a subgroup of the Arawak people of South America, and the group that inhabited Puerto Rico was traced back to a village in what is now Venezuela, according to El Boricua. The Taino were very peaceful and lived in several different villages across the island. They specialized in a unique style of pottery, farming and fishing.

The Taino welcomed Christopher Columbus when he landed in Puerto Rico in 1493 on his second voyage from Spain. Famed for their hospitality, they even showed Columbus the gold nuggetsin the river and told Columbus to take all he wanted. Columbus named the island San Juan Bautista (after St. John the Baptist) and the town in which he landed Puerto Rico (“rich port”) due to the gold in the river. Over the years, the name of the town and island were swapped.

Juan Ponce de León, a former lieutenant under Columbus, arrived in 1508 and turned Puerto Rico into Spain’s most important military outpost in the Caribbean due its location and natural resources. Colonization by the Spaniards soon followed, as well as the importation of slaves from Africa. Within a year, Ponce de León had conquered most of the island, enslaving or killing many of the inhabitants. The Spanish government saw this as a success and named Ponce de León as the first governor of Puerto Rico in 1509.

It is estimated that the population of the Taino went from between 30,000 and 50,000 at the time Columbus landed in 1493 to approximately 4,000 by 1514 and to about 1,150 by 1530, according to the Genocide Studies Program at Yale University. Many of the Taino died from European diseases, due to their lack of immunity. Many others were killed while trying to defend their land, or by committing suicide when captured and enslaved. Some hid in the dense forests, while others took refuge on nearby islands. Many of the enslaved native islanders who survived worked side-by-side with enslaved Africans. They mined gold and farmed high-demand crops such as sugar, coffee and tobacco.

The richness and location of the island made it a prime target for bothpirates and invasion attempts by other countries, according to Frommer’s. Smugglers also took advantage of the Spanish forces concentrating in San Juan, and made huge profits working out of less-protected areas.

A cuatro is a stringed instrument adapted from the guitar. It originally had four strings but now has five sets of double strings.

A cuatro is a stringed instrument adapted from the guitar. It originally had four strings but now has five sets of double strings.

Credit: MikeHerna/Shutterstock

After centuries of Spanish rule, the territory of Puerto Rico was transferred to the United States in 1898 at the end of the Spanish-American War. It was established as an unincorporated territory, which meant there was no plan to make it a state. (During the westward expansion period, the United States created incorporated territories that could and did become states, according to the History Channel.)

Puerto Ricans were granted full U.S. citizenship in 1917. However, Puerto Ricans living on the island cannot vote for president (they can if they reside in a U.S. state), and their delegate to the U.S. House of Representatives cannot vote except in committees. Puerto Ricans can serve in the U.S. military, and they pay into the Social Security system. They don’t have to file a U.S. federal income tax return if their only income was from sources within Puerto Rico, according to the Internal Revenue Service.

Puerto Rico became a United States Commonwealth in 1952, which gave the island more autonomy over local matters, including elections, taxes, education, health, housing and culture. However, the U.S. Congress and the president still control matters such as citizenship, immigration, defense, currency and trade, according to Jorge Duany, a professor of anthropology at Florida International University. Congress or the president can veto any decision made by the island’s legislature. It creates a situation in which Puerto Rico “belonged to but was not part of the United States,” he wrote.

In recent years, there have been several referendums on statehood and independence. In the most recent vote, a nonbinding referendum on June 11, 2017, about 97 percent of voters — more than half a million people — chose statehood. There were 7,800 votes for free association/independence and more than 6,800 votes for the current territorial status, according to the Associated Press. However, turnout was low — only 23 percent — and only Congress can incorporate the islands into a state. It’s unlikely that statehood will happen, Lillian Guerra, a history professor at the University of Florida, said in the History Channel article.

Puerto Rican culture is based on a blend of Taino, African and Spanish traditions, food, music, art and language. There are also influences introduced by immigrants from China, Italy, France, Germany and Cuba. American culture has also mingled with Puerto Rico’s since it became a U.S. territory, according to Smithsonian magazine.

Cocina Criolla, the local name for Puerto Rican cuisine, has its roots in Taino, Spanish and African specialties and cooking styles with influences from European and Chinese immigrants. The Taino people lived primarily on tropical fruit, corn, yuca and seafood. When the Spanish arrived, they introduced many types of food, including rice, wheat, olives and olive oil, beef, pork and garlic. Enslaved Africans brought okra, taro and plantains. The Spanish also introduced sugarcane and coffee to the island. Sugarcane was used to distill rum, which today is still a favorite drink in Puerto Rico. Today’s cuisine focuses on many of the same ingredients, using indigenous ingredients and many imported ones to create a unique dining experience.

Several instruments that are traditionally used in Puerto Rican music date back to the Taino people. One such instrument is the güiro, according to the Music of Puerto Rico website. The güirois a hollowed-out gourd with notches on one side that is played by rubbing a stick along the notches.

Several instruments were adapted from the six-string guitar brought over by early Spanish settlers, including the requinto, bordonua, cuatro and tiple. Percussion instruments such as panderetasand maracas were also very popular. Dances were choreographed to match the music (and the music’s name). They included the bomba, plena and variations of the salsa.

Puerto Rican art also shows a blend of the many cultures in the island’s melting pot. Taino art included jewelry made from gold, shells and stones. The Taino also crafted pottery and baskets, and worked with wood and stone. Religious figures that date back to the 16th century were influenced by the Spanish settlers and were known as Santos, according to the website Welcome to Puerto Rico. Santos were typically carved or molded by craftsmen using clay, stone, gold and wood. These may have been preceded by what the Taino called “cemi,” highly revered small statues that stood within the villages. Large, ornate papier-mâché masks that date back to medieval Spain, tribal Africa or both are very popular during carnival time.

  • Puerto Rico is home to about 3.4 million people. About 4.9 million Puerto Ricans live elsewhere in the United States. Puerto Rico is one of the most densely populated islands in the world with an average of nearly 1,000 people per square mile.
  • The capital of San Juan is located on the north shore of the main island. There are 78 municipalities, including the islands of Culebra and Vieques.
  • The official languages are English and Spanish.
  • The U.S. dollar is the official currency.
  • The Puerto Rican flag, adopted in 1922, has a white star in a blue triangle on the left with three red alternating with two white stripes on the right.
  • The second largest radio telescope in the world is located in Arecibo.
  • Several words that are commonly used in the English language originated from the Taino language, including hurricane (huracán), barbecue (barbacoa), and hammock (hamaka).
  • The national bird is the reina mora, also known as the stripe-headed Tanager. The national flower is the flor de maga, also known as the Puerto Rican hibiscus. The national tree is the ceiba, also known as the silk-cotton tree. The national symbol is the coqui frog.

Top 10 Horrific Facts About Scalping On The American Frontier

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Top 10 Horrific Facts About Scalping On The American Frontier



Native Americans weren’t the only people who scalped their enemies. The European settlers who colonized the country learned from and copied them. Cutting off the skin on a man’s head became a widespread practice across the country—America’s dirty secret that plays a hidden role in every major moment in the nation’s history.

At first, the settlers of the New World treated scalping as a sign of barbarism and savagery. But as time went on and they struggled through more of life on the wild frontier, some started to see tearing the skin of a man’s skull as nothing worse than an efficient way to take home his head.

The American frontier became a brutal place where the scalps of dead men were a currency. White men and natives alike were massacring and mutilating innocent people for a fistful of cash—and the thin, delicate line between civilization and savagery slowly eroded away.

Featured image credit: Peter S. Duval

10A Chief Tried To Impress Jacques Cartier With His Scalp Collection

Photo credit: Lawrence R. Batchelor

Jacques Cartier may have been the first European to see a scalp firsthand. While in the area now known as Quebec City, he met with a tribal chief named Donnacona.

They greeted one another with courtesy. The tribe put on a dance of welcoming for the visiting explorers, and Cartier presented Donnacona with gifts. Then, to impress his new friend, Donnacona showed Cartier his most prized possession: five human scalps, dried out and stretched across hoops.

Other Europeans would soon start writing home about it, describing warriors who would carve off the scalps of their dead enemies, raise them above, and let out a cry they called “the death cry.” The Native Americans, men reported, would bring the scalps of their enemies home on the tips of their lances. They would pass them around and make jokes about them, sometimes even feeding them to their dogs.

It was psychological warfare, meant to terrify, and it definitely worked on the Europeans. The record of Cartier’s voyage says little about their reaction. But after describing the scalps with hoops, the account ends with a stoic, “After seeing these things, we returned to our ships.”

9Some People Were Scalped Alive

Photo credit: E.E. Henry

Scalping wasn’t just a way to claim a trophy from the body of a dead man. Some people were still alive and struggling when a warrior would pull back their head and slice off the skin at the top of their skulls.

We have medical records from doctors who had to treat the still-living victims of a scalping. Some were given a second chance at life. If a doctor acted fast, he could surgically repair the scalp and leave the person alive, with nothing worse than a disfiguring, bald scar that would cover the head for the rest of the person’s life.

In the earlier days, though, the doctors weren’t as effective. The first treatments for scalped men had doctors pierce the skull to the bone marrow. Opening up little holes into the bone marrow, the doctors wrote, would make a “flesh projection” grow over the wound. But it would also leave them with a soft, thin spot on the top of their skulls and put them through excruciating pain.

Other people survived without treatment—but not for long. They would live for a few months with exposed bone at the top of their heads until infection set in. Their skulls would get inflamed, and the bone would start to separate, slowing exposing their bare, unprotected brains.

8American Colonies Paid Bounties For Indian Scalps

Not long after the Mayflower set sail to the New World in search of a Christian utopia of peace and tolerance, white men started taking scalps.

The first scalps were claimed during the Pequot War. When a trader named John Oldham was killed by Native Americans, the Puritans of the Massachusetts Colony started fighting a full-on war with their neighbors. Soon, the governor was promising a reward for any man who could bring home the head of a Native American.

Heads, though, are large and cumbersome, and the men would have to come home with only a few kills under their belts to claim their reward. It wasn’t long before the Puritans picked up an idea from their enemies. They started cutting off scalps, filling bags with them, and bringing the scalps home instead.

Other colonies followed their lead. By 1641, the governor of New Netherlands put out the first official bounty on any and all scalps from a native’s head, promising “10 fathoms of wampum” for every scalp from a member of the Raritan tribe.

The Massachusetts Bay Colony soon had their own, promising 40 pounds for the scalps of warriors and 20 pounds for women and children younger than 12 years old. Every citizen, the governor declared, was called upon to “embrace all opportunities of pursuing, capturing, killing, and destroying all and any of the aforesaid Indians.”

Hunting season had begun.

7The Crow Creek Scalping Massacre

Photo credit: frontierpartisans.com

One of the worst scalping massacres of all time happened in 1325, more than 100 years before Columbus’s voyage, at a Native American town called Crow Creek.

The Crow Creek tribe had a massive town, with 55 lodges surrounded by a thick wall made of wood and buffalo hides. One night, while they were sleeping, an enemy tribe sneaked over their walls and massacred nearly every person there.

Archaeologists found the remains of 486 people at the site of the massacre. Nearly every person in the town was scalped after they were killed—except for the young women, who were taken back as sex slaves for the men who’d killed their husbands.

Since the only thing we know about the massacre is what we can find in the remains of the victims, nobody knows for sure who did it. By the time Europeans made it to the site of Crow Creek, though, the Arikara tribe was telling stories about a great big village that had to be taught a lesson—which might just be a clue.

6Hannah Duston Scalped Her Captors

Photo credit: alchetron.com

Hannah Duston was a housewife, the mother of eight children, and the last person you’d expect to walk into a governor’s office demanding the bountyfor her 10 scalps.

Her story begins in 1697 when her home in Haverhill, Massachusetts, was attacked by the Abenaki tribe. Her husband, Thomas, fled with seven of their children, but he left Hannah and their newborn daughter behind. Hannah watched in horror as 27 people in her village were murdered. Then her Abenaki captor pulled her newborn baby girl from her arms and smashed the baby’s head against a tree.

The Abenaki dragged Hannah to an island to be their captive, but Hannah spent every second looking for her chance for revenge. She waited until they fell asleep. Then she grabbed a tomahawk and rammed it into the heads of the 10 Abenaki people holding her hostage.

She cut off their scalps before she escaped. Then she brought the other hostages to a canoe and rescued them all.

And that’s how a middle-aged mother, thought to be dead, showed up at the Massachusett governor’s office with the biggest collection of scalps they’d ever seen and demanded her reward.

5US Rangers Went On Scalp-Hunting Expeditions

Photo via Wikimedia

In the early 1700s, some US Rangers started working as full-time scalpcollectors. They would go into the wilderness looking for Native Americans to kill, determined to bring home a bag full of scalps and make a small fortune.

One of the most successful was John Lovewell, who became a minorcelebrity for the number of scalps he brought home. At one point, he made a wig from the torn scalps of the men he’d killed. Then Lovewell paraded through the streets of Boston wearing the wig on his head.

Scalping was profitable. Lovewell wasn’t just famous—he was rich. He got 100 pounds for every scalp he brought home, which was a lot of money at the time. Killing Native Americans had made him more money than he’d ever earned in his life.

It also ended up getting him killed. He organized a group of 47 men to take a village of more than 100 people. Likely, he hoped to split the profits among as few people as possible. He’d overestimated his own abilities, though. Lovewell was killed in the battle—and, appropriately enough, scalped.

4Henry Hamilton Paid Indians For The Scalps Of American Revolutionaries

Photo via Wikimedia

During the American Revolution, a British man called Henry Hamilton earned the nickname “The Hair-Buyer General. He was in charge of getting Native American tribes to help Britain beat down the American Revolutionaries—and he did it by buying scalps.

Hamilton didn’t exactly have progressive opinions. He wrote about the Native Americans as “savages,” arguing that Britain should take advantage of their “natural propensity . . . for blood.” He paid the Native Americans for every white man’s scalp they could bring home, only telling them not to “redden your axe with the blood of women and children.”

Hamilton provided the natives with scalping knives and kept records of how many scalps they brought in. In his biggest haul, he was given 129 American scalps in a single day.

But scalping only brought about more scalping. As the Americans watched their men die, they struck back—and started scalping Hamilton’s mercenaries as brutal acts of revenge.

3A Kentucky Militia Would Strip Naked And Take Scalps

The next time that the United States and Britain went to war, some Americans had fully embraced the idea of scalping their enemies. By the time the War of 1812 had begun, a militia group from Kentucky had gone completely savage.

The Kentucky Militia would strip down to their underwear and daub themselves with red war paint before attacking British and Native American camps. The militia murdered every person they could find and tore off their scalps. There wasn’t a cash reward for doing it—they just wanted a memento of their massacres.

One officer from Pennsylvania wrote in his journal that he’d been sitting next to a soldier from Kentucky when, without warning, the Kentuckian “ripped open his waistband, fleshed them with his knife, salted them, and set them in hoops.”

Most of the country was disgusted by this. The British used it in propaganda, calling Kentuckians “the most barbarous, illiterate beings in America.”

But the Kentuckians didn’t care. One young soldier wrote that he’d sent a scalp home to his parents the first chance he got. “Daddy and Mamma,” thesoldier wrote, “thought I had done about right.”

2The Sand Creek Massacre

Photo credit: nps.gov

When the Civil War began, some soldiers got sidetracked over a dispute with the local Cheyenne tribe. They had been accused of stealing livestock, and the Union troops wouldn’t stand for it. In retaliation, a group led by Colonel John Chivington started burning down Cheyenne camps.

The Cheyenne didn’t want any trouble. Their chief, Black Kettle, came to Chivington begging for peace, saying, “We want to take good tidings home to our people, that they may sleep in peace.” Chivington told Black Kettle that he wasn’t authorized to make peace—and then made plans to massacre the village of Sand Creek.

“Damn any man who sympathizes with Indians,” Chivington declared. “Kill and scalp all, big and little; nits make lice.”

A white man named John Smith had a son in the camp who died with the others. He went in to claim his dead and saw the horrifying scene firsthand. “I saw the bodies of those lying there cut all to pieces,” he reported. They had been scalped and brutalized, with their children killed and unborn babies ripped out of wombs.

The worst, though, was the body of a man called White Antelope. After he was scalped, his nose and ears were cut off and his testicles were removed and turned into a tobacco pouch—a keepsake for army men who had slaughtered a peaceful village.

1The Glanton Gang Scalped Mexicans For Cash

Photo credit: xroads.virginia.edu

During the Mexican-American War, Texas Ranger John Joel Glanton took up a job collecting scalps from the Apache tribe. Some of the Apache had become involved in the fighting, and the American Army wanted them out of the way. So they paid handsomely for every scalp that Glanton could bring in.

This made Glanton rich. But fairly soon, he started running out of Apaches to kill. The US Army, though, wasn’t really checking where his scalps came from. So he started killing Mexican civilians instead and passing them off as Apaches.

After a while, Glanton’s bloodlust turned him into a full-on serial killer. He and his gang stole a river ferry from some members of the Yuma tribe and invited people to ride in his boat. Once the people were trapped in the middle of the water, Glanton and his men would massacre them—whether they were Mexicans or Americans—and loot their dead bodies.

The Chihuahua government put a bounty on his head, but it was the Yuma who got him. They were normally a peaceful tribe, but Glanton had pushed them too far. While he was sleeping, the Yuma tribe sneaked into his camp. They killed his cohorts and slit Glanton’s throat while he was sleeping.

10 Greatest Native American Chiefs And Leaders

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10 Greatest Native American Chiefs And Leaders



If you live in the the United States (and even if you don’t) you’ve probably heard about a number of the country’s prominent historical figures. But what about the history of those who were there before? Even many Americans know very little of Native American history.

One of many overlooked aspects of Native American history is the long list of exceptional men who led various tribes as chiefs or war leaders. Just as noble and brave as anyone on the Mexican, British, or American sides, many of them have been swept into the dustbin of history. Here are ten of the greatest Native American chiefs and leaders.


Photo credit: Pinterest

A member of the Apache tribe, Victorio was also the chief of his particular band, the Chiricahua. He was born in what is now New Mexico in 1809, when the land was still under Mexican control. For decades, the United States had been taking Native American lands, and Victorio grew up in turbulent times for his people. Because of that experience, he became a fearsome warrior and leader, commanding a relatively small band of fighters on innumerable raids.

For more than ten years, Victorio and his men managed to evade the pursuing US forces before he finally surrendered in 1869. Unfortunately, the land he accepted as the spot for their reservation was basically inhospitable and unsuitable for farming. (It’s known as Hell’s Forty Acres.) He quickly decided to move his people and became an outlaw once again. In 1880, in the Tres Castillos Mountains of Mexico, Victorio was finally surrounded and killed by Mexican troops. (Some sources, especially Apache sources, say he actually took his own life.)

Perhaps more interesting than Victorio was his younger sister, Lozen. She was said to have participated in a special Apache puberty rite which was purported to have given her the ability to sense her enemies. Her hands would tingle when she was facing the direction of her foes, with the strength of the feeling telling how close they were.

9Chief Cornstalk

Photo credit: Wikimedia

More popularly known by the English translation of his Shawnee name Hokolesqua, Chief Cornstalk was born sometime around 1720, probably in Pennsylvania. Like much of the Shawnee people, he resettled to Ohio in the 1730s as a result of continuous conflict with invading white settlers (especially over the alcohol they brought with them). Tradition holds that Cornstalk got his first taste of battle during the French and Indian War, in which his tribe sided with the French.

A lesser-known conflict called Lord Dunmore’s War took place in 1774, and Cornstalk was thrust into fighting once again. However, the colonists quickly routed the Shawnee and their allies, compelling the Native Americans to sign a treaty, ceding all land east and south of the Ohio River. Though Cornstalk would abide by the agreement until his death, many other Shawnee bristled at the idea of losing their territory and plotted to attack once again. In 1777, Cornstalk went to an American fort to warn them of an impending siege. However, he was taken prisoner and later murdered by vengeance-seeking colonists.

Cornstalk’s longest-lasting legacy has nothing to do with his actions in life. After his death, when reports of a flying creature later dubbed the “Mothman” began to surface in West Virginia, its appearance was purported to have come about because of a supposed curse which Cornstalk had laid on the land after the treachery that resulted in his death.

8Black Hawk

Photo credit: Wikimedia

A member and eventual war leader of the Sauk tribe, Black Hawk was born in Virginia in 1767. Relatively little is known about him until he joined theBritish side during the War of 1812, leading to some to refer to Black Hawk and his followers as the “British Band.” (He was also a subordinate of Tecumseh, another Native American leader on this list.) A rival Sauk leader signed a treaty with the United States, perhaps because he was tricked, which ceded much of their land, and Black Hawk refused to honor the document, leading to decades of conflict between the two parties.

In 1832, after having been forcibly resettled two years earlier, Black Hawk led between 1,000 and 1,500 Native Americans back to a disputed area in Illinois. That move instigated the Black Hawk War, which only lasted 15 weeks, after which around two-thirds of the Sauk who came to Illinois had perished. Black Hawk himself avoided capture until 1833, though he was released in a relatively short amount of time. Disgraced among his people, he lived out the last five years of his life in Iowa. A few years before his death, he dictated his autobiography to an interpreter and became somewhat of a celebrity to the US public.


Photo credit: Wikimedia

Another Shawnee war leader, Tecumseh was born in the Ohio Valley sometime around 1768. Around the age of 20, he began going on raids with an older brother, traveling to various frontier towns in Kentucky and Tennessee. After a number of Native American defeats, he left to Indiana, raising a band of young warriors and becoming a respected war chief. One of his younger brothers underwent a series of visions and became a religious prophet, going so far as to accurately predict a solar eclipse.

Using his brother’s abilities to his advantage, Tecumseh quickly began to unify a number of different peoples into a settlement known as Prophetstown, better known in the United States as Tippecanoe. One day, while Tecumseh was away on a recruiting trip, future US president William Henry Harrison launched a surprise attack and burned it to the ground, killing nearly everyone.

Still angered at his people’s treatment at the hands of the US, Tecumseh joined forces with Great Britain when the War of 1812 began. However, he died at the Battle of the Thames on October 5, 1813. Though he was a constant enemy to them, Americans quickly turned Tecumseh into a folk hero, valuing his impressive oratory skills and the bravery of his spirit.


Photo credit: Ben Wittick

Perhaps the most famous Native American leader of all time, Geronimo was a medicine man in the Bedonkohe band of the Chiricahua. Born in June 1829, he was quickly acclimated to the Apache way of life. As a young boy, he swallowed the heart of his first successful hunting kill and had already led four separate raids before he turned 18. Like many of his people, he suffered greatly at the hands of the “civilized” people around him. The Mexicans, who still controlled the land, killed his wife and three young children. (Though he hated Americans, he maintained a deep-seated abhorrence for Mexicans until his dying day.)

In 1848, Mexico ceded control of vast swaths of land, including Apache territory, in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. This preceded near-constant conflict between the new American settlers and the tribes which lived on the land. Eventually, Geronimo and his people were moved off their ancestors’ land and placed in a reservation in a barren part of Arizona, something the great leader deeply resented. Over the course of the next ten years, he led a number of successful breakouts, hounded persistently by the US Army. In addition, he became a celebrity for his daring escapes, playing on the public’s love of the Wild West.

He finally surrendered for the last time on September 4, 1886, followed by a number of different imprisonments. Shortly before his death, Geronimo pleaded his case before President Theodore Roosevelt, failing to convince the American leader to allow his people to return home. He took his last breath in 1909, following an accident on his horse. On his deathbed, he was said to have stated: “I should never have surrendered; I should have fought until I was the last man alive.”

5Crazy Horse

Photo credit: MOs810

A fearsome warrior and leader of the Oglala Sioux, Crazy Horse was born around 1840 in present-day South Dakota. One story about his name says that he was given it by his father after displaying his skills as a fighter. Tensions between Americans and the Sioux had been increasing since his birth, but they boiled over when he was a young teenager. In August 1854, a Sioux chief named Conquering Bear was killed by a white soldier. In retaliation, the Sioux killed the lieutenant in command along with all 30 of his men in what is now known as the Grattan Massacre.

Utilizing his knowledge as a guerilla fighter, Crazy Horse was a thorn in the side of the US Army, which would stop at nothing to force his people onto reservations. The most memorable battle in which Crazy Horse participated was the Battle of the Little Bighorn, the fight in which Custer and his men were defeated. However, by the next year, Crazy Horse had surrendered. The scorched-earth policy of the US Army had proven to be too much for his people to bear. While in captivity, he was stabbed to death with a bayonet, allegedly planning to escape.

4Chief Seattle

Photo credit: Wikimedia

Born in 1790, Chief Seattle lived in present-day Washington state, taking up residence along the Puget Sound. A chief of two different tribes thanks to his parents, he was initially quite welcoming to the settlers who began to arrive in the 1850s, as were they to him. In fact, they established a colony on Elliot Bay and named it after the great chief. However, some of the other local tribes resented the encroachment of the Americans, and violent conflicts began to rise up from time to time, resulting in an attack on the small settlement of Seattle.

Chief Seattle felt his people would eventually be driven out of every place by these new settlers but argued that violence would only speed up the process, a sentiment which seemed to cool tempers. The close, and peaceful, contact which followed led him to convert to Christianity, becoming a devout follower for the rest of his days. In a nod to the chief’s traditional religion, the people of Seattle paid a small tax to use his name for the city. (Seattle’s people believed the mention of a deceased person’s name kept him from resting peacefully.)

Fun fact: The speech most people associate with Chief Seattle, in which he puts a heavy emphasis on mankind’s need to care for the environment, is completely fabricated. It was written by a man named Dr. Henry A. Smith in 1887.


Almost nothing is known about the childhood of one of the greatest Apache chiefs in history. In fact, no one is even sure when he was born. Relatively tall for his day, he was said to have stood at least 183 centimeters (6′), cutting a very imposing figure. A leader of the Chiricahua tribe, Cochise led his people on a number of raids, sometimes against Mexicans and sometimes against Americans. However, it was his attacks on the US which led to his demise.

In 1861, a raiding party of a different Apache tribe kidnapped a child, and Cochise’s tribe was accused of the act by a relatively inexperienced US Army officer. Though they were innocent, an attempt at arresting the Native Americans, who had come to talk, ended in violence, with one shot to death and Cochise escaping the meeting tent by cutting a hole in the side and fleeing. Various acts of torture and execution by both sides followed, and it seemed to have no end. But the US Civil War had begun, and Arizona was left to the Apache.

Less than a year later, however, the Army was back, armed with howitzers, and they began to destroy the tribes still fighting. For nearly ten years, Cochise and a small band of fighters hid among the mountains, raiding when necessary and evading capture. In the end, Cochise was offered a huge part of Arizona as a reservation. His reply: “The white man and the Indian are to drink of the same water, eat of the same bread, and be at peace.” Unfortunately for Cochise, he didn’t get to experience the fruits of his labor for long, as he became seriously ill and died in 1874.

2Sitting Bull

Photo credit: David F. Barry

A chief and holy man of the Hunkpapa Lakota, Sitting Bull was born in 1831, somewhere in present-day South Dakota. In his youth, he was an ardent warrior, going on his first raid at only 14. His first violent encounter with US troops was in 1863. It was this bravery which led to him becoming the head of all the Lakota in 1868. Though small conflicts between the Lakota and the US would continue for the decade, it wasn’t until 1874 that full-scale war began. The reason: Gold had been found in the sacred Black Hills of South Dakota. (The land had been off-limits thanks to an earlier treaty, but the US discarded it when attempts to buy the land were unsuccessful.)

The violence culminated in a Native American coalition facing off against US troops led by Custer at the aforementioned Battle of the Little Bighorn. Afterward, many more troops came pouring into the area, and chief after chief was forced to surrender, with Sitting Bull escaping to Canada. His people’s starvation eventually led to an agreement with the US, whereupon they were moved to a reservation. After fears were raised that Sitting Bull would join in a religious movement known as the Ghost Dance, a ceremony which purported to rid the land of white people, his arrest was ordered. A gunfight between police and his supporters soon erupted, and Sitting Bull was shot in the head and killed.

1Mangas Coloradas

Photo credit: True West Magazine

The father-in-law to Cochise and one of the most influential chiefs of the 1800s, Mangas Coloradas was a member of the Apache. Born just before the turn of the century, he was said to be unusually tall and became the leader of his band in 1837, after his predecessor and many of their band were killed. They died because Mexico was offering money for Native American scalps—no questions asked. Determined to not let that go unpunished, Mangas Coloradas and his warriors began wreaking havoc, even killing all the citizens of the town of Santa Rita.

When the US declared war on Mexico, Mangas Coloradas saw them as his people’s saviors, signing a treaty with the Americans allowing soldiers passage through Apache lands. However, as was usually the case, when gold and silver were found in the area, the treaty was discarded. By 1863, the US was flying a flag of truce, allegedly trying to come to a peace agreement with the great chief. However, he was betrayed, killed under the false pretense that he was trying to escape, and then mutilated after death. Asa Daklugie, a nephew of Geronimo, later said this was the last straw for the Apache, who would began mutilating those who had the bad luck to fall into their hands.

Palace of Versailles: Facts & History

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Palace of Versailles: Facts & History

Palace of Versailles: Facts & History

The Palace of Versailles, the seat of French royalty, is about 10 miles (16 km) southwest of Paris.

Credit: Worakit Sirijinda | Shutterstock

The Palace of Versailles is an opulent complex and former royal residence outside of Paris. It has held sway in the public imagination for years because of its architectural grandeur and political history.

“To the public imagination, Versailles is the epitome of opulence,” said Louise Boisen Schmidt, a Denmark-based writer at This Is Versailles. It represents an age in French history of both France’s rise as a fashion and power center as well as the dramatic — and bloody — decline of the monarchy.”

Located about 10 miles (16 kilometers) southwest of Paris, the palace is beside the settlement of Versailles. The town was little more than a hamlet before becoming the seat of royal power. By the time of the French Revolution, it had a population of more than 60,000 people, making it one of the largest urban centers in France.

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France’s kings were first attracted to Versailles because of the area’s prolific game. Louis XIII, who lived 1601-1643, bought up land, built a chateau and went on hunting trips. At the time, much of the land around Versailles was uncultivated, allowing wild animals to flourish.

The chateau Louis XIII built was little more than a hunting lodge having enough space to house the king and a small entourage. It was his successor, Louis XIV (1638-1715), the “Sun King,” a ruler who chose the sun as his emblem and believed in centralized government with the king at its center, who would radically transform Versailles making it the seat of France’s government by the time of his death.

Versailles features many fountains that were technological marvels for their time.

Versailles features many fountains that were technological marvels for their time.

Credit: Joan Quevado Fle Shutterstock

Louis XIV ruled France for 72 years, and in that time transformed Versailles by encompassing Louis XIII’s chateau with a palace that contained north and south wings, as well as nearby buildings housing ministries.

Versailles was built to impress. “The most important message Louis XIV sent through the architecture of Versailles was his ultimate power,” said Tea Gudek Snajdar, an Amsterdam-based art historian, museum docent and a blogger at Culture Tourist. “He is an absolute monarch, untouchable and distant. But, even more then that, he is the Sun King. That symbolism of the Sun King is very visible in the architecture of the Versailles. The painter Lebrun, who designed the iconographic program of the Palace, focused paintings, sculptures and the architecture to one goal only — celebrating the King.”

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A series of gardens, created in a formal style, stood to the west of the palace (one of them today is in the shape of a star) and contained sculptures as well as the pressurized fountains capable of launching water high into the air. The formality and grandeur of the gardens symbolized Louis XIV’s absolute power, even over nature, according to Gudek Snajder.

“From the outset Louis attached a supreme importance to these water effects. Their virtuosity formed the star turn of a tour of the gardens,” writes Tony Spawforth, a professor at Newcastle University, in his book “Versailles: A Biography of a Palace” (St. Martin’s Press, 2008). “The effects were the work of engineers whose machines made Versailles a hydraulic as much as an artistic wonder.” Unfortunately, Spawforth notes, problems supplying water meant that the fountains could only be turned on during special occasions.

In addition a grand canal, constructed to the west of the garden and running about a mile long, was used for naval demonstrations and had gondolas, donated by the Republic of Venice, steered by gondoliers.

Building such a lavish complex was an important part of Louis XIV’s style of rule and beliefs about monarchy, which we would call absolutism, said Schmidt. “As king of France he was the embodiment of France — and his palace was meant to display the wealth and power of his nation,” she said. “Furthermore, it was vital to him to enhance France’s status in Europe; not just by military feats but in the arts as well. For instance, when the Hall of Mirrors was built, mirrors were usually imported from Italy at a great cost. Louis XIV wanted to show that France could produce mirrors just as fine as those produced in Italy, and consequently, all the mirrors of that hall were made on French soil.”

Louis also insisted on moving the French government to Versailles. Scholars have suggested a number of factors that led him to build a great palace complex at Versailles and move the French government there. It’s been noted that by keeping the king’s residence some distance from Paris, it offered him protection from any civil unrest going on in the city. It also forced the nobles to travel to Versailles and seek lodging in the palace, something that impeded their ability to build up regional power bases that could potentially challenge the king.

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As the French government moved into Versailles, and the king found himself swamped by work in his palace, he built himself the Grand (also called Marble) Trianon, a more modest palatial structure, about a mile (1.6 kilometers) to the northwest of the palace as a private retreat where only he and those invited could visit.

Spawforth notes that the palace contained about 350 living units varying in size, from multi-room apartments to spaces about the size of an alcove. The size and location of the room a person got depended on their rank and standing with the king. While the crown prince (known as the dauphin) got a sprawling apartment on the ground floor, a servant may have nothing more than a space in an attic or a makeshift room behind a staircase.

Louis XIV’s bedroom was built on the upper floor and located centrally along the east-west axis of the palace. It was the most important room and was the location of two important ceremonies where the king would wake up (lever) and go to sleep (coucher) surrounded by his courtiers. The king also had a ceremony for putting on and taking off his hunting boots.

The Hall of Mirrors at the Palace of Versailles.

The Hall of Mirrors at the Palace of Versailles.

Credit: Jose Ignacio Soto Shutterstock

These practices were symbols of Louis XIV’s moniker of Sun King. “His court was seen as microcosms of the universe and the king is the sun that shines over everything. Each action he would took (having a meal, strolling through the garden) became symbolic metaphor for his divine presence,” explained Gudek Snajdar. “The ‘Escalier des Ambassadeurs’ was the first and the most important Baroque ceremonial staircase. The interaction between the visitor and the king could be directed here in the most careful fashion.”

The importance of the courtiers’ presence at these ceremonies continued into the reigns of Louis XV and XVI. Spawforth notes that a courtier in 1784 wrote that “most of the people who come to the court are persuaded that, to make their way there, they must show themselves everywhere, be absent as little possible at the king’s lever, removal of the boots, andcoucher, show themselves assiduously at the dinners of the royal family … in short, must ceaselessly work at having themselves noticed.”

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The king had his throne in the “Apollo Salon” and worshiped in a royal chapel, which spanned two stories, which Bajou notes was built between 1699 and 1710.

Despite the richness of the palace, the kings had to make do with makeshift theaters up until 1768 when Louis XV allowed the building of the royal opera. It contained a mechanism that allowed the orchestra level to be raised to the stage allowing it to be used for dancing and banqueting. Spawforth notes that the opera required 3,000 candles to be burned for opening night and was rarely used due to its cost and the poor shape of France’s finances.

According to Schmidt, to our modern eyes, Versailles is a perfect example of baroque and rococo architecture. But, said Gudek Snajdar, the French of the time would not have considered it baroque. “And it’s understandable why,” she said. “It’s very different from, for example, Italian baroque architecture, which served as an inspiration for other European countries during that time.”

Having his palace evoke Italian baroque architecture would have angered Louis XIV. It would have gone against his sense of absolutism, said Gudek Snajdar, the belief that he is at the center of everything. In fact, Louis XIV fired a famous Italian architect hired to work on the Louvre Palace, which was built not long before Versailles.

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Some art historians now call the style of the Louvre and Versailles “French classicism.” They possess somewhat different features than Italian baroque architecture, including the emphasis on symbols of power and timeless domination. Other types of baroque architecture featured symbolic art, but not necessarily with the emphasis on divine right, kingly power and timeless rule.

Everything in the Versailles of Louis XIV had a symbolic meaning,” said Schmidt. “The ceilings are adorned with illustrations of Roman gods with Louis XIV himself painted as Apollo, the Sun God. Throughout the palace you will find the intertwined L’s of his name. It all serves as a constant reminder that he is the king and all power comes from him by the grace of God.”

The decoration also emphasized the achievements of the king.The ‘Hall of Mirrors’ and the adjacent Salons of War and Peace were decorated with the history of the king,” said Gudek Snajdar. The Hall of Mirrors has 30 tableaux that depict an epic story of Louis XIV’s achievements and aspirations. Victory in battle features prominently in these narratives, with one example showing Louis with his army crossing the Rhine River in 1672. He is dressed in Roman clothes, his long hair flows behind him, and he holds a thunderbolt like a projectile. He sits like a god in a chariot that is being pushed by none other than Hercules himself.

Near the Grand Trianon, Marie Antoinette, the queen of Louis XVI, created an estate for herself. She took over a building called the “Petit Trianon” and built a number of structures, including a working farm (also called the “hamlet”), which provided the palace with fresh produce, and a nearby house and small theater.

She also built a “Temple of Love,” which modern-day curators say can be seen from her room in the Petit Trianon. It features a dome propped up by nearly a dozen columns covering a statue, which shows a depiction of “Cupid cutting his bow from the club of Hercules,” Bajou writes.

Additionally, she built the charming “grotto,” a cave that had a moss bed for Marie Antoinette to lie on. It had two entrances, prompting much speculation as to what went on in it.

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Though Marie Antoinette is known for her lavishness, in reality she did not always enjoy being queen. Her estate reflects a desire for a simpler life and homesickness for her native Austria. “Marie Antoinette grew up in Vienna as the youngest daughter of Empress Maria Theresa and Francis I. In the Habsburg Empire, royalty was allotted a far greater sense of privacy and she had a remarkably “normal” upbringing,” explained Schmidt. “During her childhood she would enjoy private family dinners and played with commoners’ children, but at Versailles that was impossible. Once she had become Dauphine, her life was constantly in the spotlight. Etiquette demanded that she dine before a seemingly never-ending crowd of spectators and getting dressed was a court ceremony in itself.”

Marie Antoinette attempted to break some etiquette rules but was opposed by the court and the French people. She built the Hamlet and took over the Petit Trianon so that she could escape the many watchful eyes and be herself. It was an attempt to “recreate some of her dearly missed childhood.”


Two key events in the American Revolution happened at Versailles. Benjamin Franklin, acting on behalf of a newly independent United States, negotiated a treaty with Louis XVI, which led to America getting critical support from the French military. Spawforth notes that Louis XVI would have one of his inventions, a “Franklin chimney,” installed that produced less smoke than an ordinary fireplace.

Fittingly, the Treaty of Paris, which formally ended the Revolutionary War, was signed on Sept. 3, 1783, at Versailles, close to the palace in the nearby foreign affairs building. Several decades later, when King Louis Philippe (reign 1830-1848) was turning Versailles into a museum, he would include a painting that depicts the siege of Yorktown, a decisive victory in the Revolutionary War in which the Americans and French cooperated against the British.

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America would reciprocate in the 1920s when oil millionaire John D. Rockefeller Jr. paid to have the palace’s expansive roof restored, among other buildings.

After the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789, King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette would be stripped of power, brought to Paris and ultimately beheaded. The palace fell under the control of the new republican government.

Many of its furnishings were sold to help pay for the subsequent Revolutionary Wars. When Napoleon came to power, he had an apartment created for himself in the Grand Trianon, complete with a map room.

King Louis Philippe, in the museum he created, showcased different aspects of French history. The Battles Gallery can still be seen today with its modern-day keepers noting that the gallery’s art depicts every main French battle between the Battle of Tolbiac in A.D. 496 and the Battle of Wagram in 1809.

In the late 19th and 20th centuries, Versailles curators would convert many of the museum areas back into palace space, trying to show how they looked before the French Revolution.

Two more pivotal events would occur at Versailles in this post-revolutionary period. In 1871, after France had lost a war against Prussia, Kaiser Wilhelm I was proclaimed Emperor of Germany in the Hall of Mirrors, adding an extra layer of humiliation to the French defeat. For several years after this defeat, the situation in France was so bad that its Chamber of Deputies and Senate opted to meet at Versailles, rather than Paris, for reasons of safety.

In 1919, France would have its revenge, of sorts, when the Treaty of Versailles, which imposed reparations on Germany, was signed in the same hall. Although the treaty formally ended World War I, it has been argued by some that it helped pave the way for World War II. Even then, centuries after its modest start as a hunting lodge, events still took place at Versailles that ultimately helped shaped the world we live in today.

Today, Versailles is one of the most-visited sites in France. Visitors are drawn to its architectural grandeur, the stunning water features (concerts are often played in the gardens during the summer) and its sense of history.

As a symbol, Versailles can be understood as one of opposites, said Schmidt. It reflects both the beauty and culture of France and its tumultuous history. “When it was built, it was a marvel (and still is) and represented France’s power. However, toward the end of the 18th century it became more of a symbol of the aristocracy’s wealth, which stood in stark contrast to that of the common people. The entire mindset of society had changed with the Enlightenment, which caused the palace to be seen as a symbol of the old regime.”

Top 10 Infamous Wartime Prisons

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Top 10 Infamous Wartime Prisons



Keeping prisoners of war is a fairly new practice. Prior to the Hundred Years’ War between England and France in the 14th and 15th centuries, armies killed enemy prisoners of war or just turned them into slaves. Richer or more valuable prisoners of war were sometimes ransomed, depending on their skills and importance.

However, with the emergence of keeping enemy combatants came the problem of where to keep them. This led to the construction or conversion of several prisons that were used to hold enemy combatants while the wars raged on.

10Camp Sumter
Georgia, USA
US Civil War


Photo credit: history.com

Camp Sumter was the biggest Confederate-operated prison of the US Civil War. It was also called Andersonville Prison Camp and opened in February 1864 after the Union and the Confederacy suspended prisoner swaps over the treatment of black prisoners.

Living conditions at Camp Sumter were terrible. The prison was overcrowded, the water was bad, hygiene was nonexistent, and disease was rife. There were no structures, and prisoners had to do with makeshift tents made from wood and blankets. They also peed and pooed inside the small creek that served as their only source of water. Several prisoners teamed up to form “raiding groups” and attacked other prisoners to get whatever they could.

At one time, Captain Henry Wirz, the prison commander, wrote a letter to the Union requesting the return of prisoner swaps. The letter was signed by almost all the prisoners at Camp Sumter and was delivered to the Union by five prisoners.

The Union rejected the request, and Camp Sumter continued holding prisoners until it was closed in April 1865. By then, about 14,000 of its 45,000 prisoners were dead. Captain Wirz was tried and executed for war crimes after the end of the war.

9Norman Cross Prison
Norman Cross, United Kingdom
Napoleonic Wars

Photo credit: themomentmagazine.com

Norman Cross prison is the world’s first purpose-built prisoner-of-war camp. It was constructed to hold French soldiers and politicians captured during the Napoleonic Wars fought between Britain and France in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

The prison opened in April 1796 and was run by the Royal Navy. Prison authorities provided their captives with education and entertainment to keep them busy and less interested in escaping. The authorities also encouraged prisoners to make small models of whatever they could and sell them to the English populace. Most prisoners were French, so it was no surprise that they had a knack for making guillotines.

For some hilarious reasons, many prisoners also lacked clothes. Apparently, at that time, individual governments were responsible for clothing their soldiers imprisoned in other countries. So the British government paid France to clothe British prisoners in France, and the French government paid Britain to clothe French prisoners in Britain. However, the French prisoners had bad gambling habits and many lost all they had, including their clothes.

Diseases were common, but most of the casualties happened between 1800 and 1801 when 1,021 prisoners died during a typhus epidemic. Some also committed suicide because they were unable to bear the conditions of the prison. The facility was closed after the defeat of Napoleon in 1814. Approximately 1,770 prisoners perished in its 17 years of operation.

8Geoje-do Prisoner Of War Camp
Geoje Island, South Korea
Korean War

Photo credit: Kang Byeong Kee

Geoje-do was a Korean War–era prison jointly run by the South Korean government and the United Nations Command. It opened in January 1951 and held over 170,000 Chinese and North Korean prisoners. It was the scene of a series of violent riots and brazen actions rarely seen in prisoner-of-war camps. On one occasion, the army needed six tanks to quell arebellion.

Prisoners generally belonged to one of two groups: those who remained loyal to North Korea and communism and those who did not. Both groups clashed at night, leaving a trail of corpses that were picked up by United Nations ambulances in the morning.

One time, the pro-communist group captured the prison commander, US General Dodd, and put him on trial for abusing prisoners. They released him after negotiations with other prison officials. Another time, the pro-communist faction put rival prisoners on trial and executed 15 of them.

After the war, the prison was in the news again when North Korea and South Korea bickered over returning captured prisoners. North Korea and China wanted all prisoners returned home, while South Korea and the United States wanted the prisoners to decide whether they wanted to stay in South Korea or return home. In the end, the prisoners were allowed to choose whether to leave or stay.

7Camp 020, Latchmere House
Ham Common, Britain
World War II

Photo credit: KenBailey

The famous Latchmere House in Ham Common, Britain, served as a prison and interrogation center during World War II. It was called Camp 020 and was under the control of the Security Service (aka MI5). Unlike other wartime prisons, it held only enemy civilian officials, especially German spies.

Camp 020 was led by Lieutenant Colonel Robin Stephens, whose love for wearing a monocle earned him the nickname “Tin Eye.” He forbade the use of torture as he believed that it would make spies tell lies. In his words: “A prisoner will lie to avoid further punishment, and everything he says thereafter will be based on a false premise.”

Stephens employed psychological pressure to break the hardest of prisoners. He bugged their cells, deprived them of sleep, and kept them in a continued state of suspense. With this, he was able to convert at least 12 of the over 500 inmates at the prison into double agents. He also used over 120 for counterespionage against Germany and executed 15 who refused to break.

6Hoa Lo Prison
Hanoi, North Vietnam
First Indochina War And The Vietnam War

France built Hoa Lo prison in 1899. At that time, it was used to hold political prisoners and was called Maison Centrale (“The Central Prison”). However, the Vietnamese preferred to call it Hoa Lo (“fire stove”) after the village that was destroyed to allow construction of the prison. That village specialized in trading pottery from “fire stoves.” Also, many stores sold coal-fired or wood stoves there in precolonial times.

Hoa Lo Prison had a maximum capacity of 500 inmates, although it held about 2,000 Vietnamese prisoners during the First Indochina War and 600 US prisoners during the Vietnam War. It was heavily fortified and defended, complete with concrete walls that were 0.61 meters (2 ft) thick, electrified fences, and iron doors. Its US prisoners were exclusively downed pilots, who later renamed it the “Hanoi Hilton” after the famous Hilton hotel chain.

One of Hoa Lo’s most famous inmates was John McCain, who later became a US Senator. His flight suit and parachute remain on display at the prison, which was converted into a museum in 1993. It is a walk-through museum, complete with life-size statues that depict the cruelty meted out to Vietnamese prisoners by the French. Propaganda videos and photographs show that the US prisoners were treated well.

5HMS Jersey
New York, USA
American Revolutionary War

Photo credit: Bookhout, Edward

HMS Jersey was the deadliest of several warships converted into prisons during the American Revolutionary War. The ships held American soldiers, merchant navy personnel, and civilians who refused to swear loyalty to the British Crown.

Living conditions on these ships were terrible, especially on HMS Jerseywhere 12 of its 1,000 prisoners died daily. This was probably why it was nicknamed “Hell.”

Food served to prisoners aboard the Jersey was not even fit for animals. The bread was moldy, the meat was putrid, and the soup was cooked with water from the copper-contaminated East River. The prisoner cabins were waterlogged, and the entire ship became so hot during the day that prisoners stripped themselves naked.

It was normal for rats to feed on dying prisoners. More Americans died on these prison ships than in the war itself. It is estimated that 8,000 Americans died in the war while 11,000 died on the ships.

4Colditz Castle
Saxony, Germany
World Wars I And II

Photo credit: yesterday.uktv.co.uk

Colditz Castle was built in the 11th century. It was first used as a watchtower and later, a zoo, workhouse, hospital, and prison. It was converted into a prison during World War I and again during World War II when it was called Oflag IV-C.

It was one of the most feared of all Nazi prisoner-of-war camps and was intended for inmates who had escaped from other prisons. However, it did hold some important prisoners like Giles Romilly, a journalist and nephew of Winston Churchill.

Life at Colditz Castle was okay on average. Prisoners spent their days organizing shows, plays, and games. They even held a prison Olympics in 1941. They also created a version of rugby, which they called “stoolball” because players needed to knock the opposing goalkeeper off the top of a stool. Despite the facility’s status, some prisoners still managed to escape from Colditz Castle.

The major problem was not escaping but reaching friendly territory. Unlike other POW camps, Colditz Castle was deep in Nazi-controlled territory and was 645 kilometers (400 mi) from the closest Allied-controlled territory.

Inmates escaped by making duplicate keys, maps, and fake identification papers. Some also pretended to be ill or mentally challenged so that they could be sent to hospitals. It is speculated that 32 prisoners escaped, although only 15 managed to reach friendly territory.

British Lieutenant Airey Neave escaped on his second attempt. He was disguised as a German soldier and walked out through the gates. In another incident, three Frenchmen escaped while seeing a dentist in town. Today, Colditz Castle has been converted into a museum.

3Con Son Prison
Con Son Island, South Vietnam
Vietnam War

France built Con Son prison in 1939. However, it came under the control of the government of South Vietnam during the Vietnam War. South Vietnam used it to hold North Vietnamese prisoners of war and South Vietnamesedissidents, some as young as 16.

The dissidents’ offenses included protesting against the government and refusing to salute the flag of South Vietnam. Con Son prison is famous for its “tiger cages”: cramped 1.5-meter (5 ft) by 2.7-meter (9 ft) cages that were used to hold prisoners as a form of torture.

Rumors about the tiger cages had been making the rounds in the US. They were confirmed by two Congressmen, who deviated from the planned route of a tour. Using a map drawn by a former inmate, they found a secret room hidden between the prison walls.

Inside, they discovered the tiger cages. One prisoner in the cages had three fingers cut off, and another had his skull split open. Many also had smelly, open sores caused by the chains used to bind them by the ankles.

Future Senator Tom Harkin, who was an aide to the Congressmen at that time, took some pictures and had them printed in Life magazine on July 17, 1970. The pictures caused an international uproar that led to the transfer of 480 tiger cage inmates to other prisons or mental institutions.

US Congressman Philip Crane drew the ire of the public when he visited the prison after the Life publication and stated that the cages were cleaner than the homes of most Vietnamese people.

2Morris Island Prison
South Carolina, USA
US Civil War

Morris Island prison was a US Civil War–era facility located on Morris Island,South Carolina. It was operated by the Union and is infamous for holding the “Immortal Six Hundred,” a group of 600 unfortunate Confederate soldiers used as pawns in a dangerous game played by Confederate General Samuel Jones and Union General J.G. Foster.

The problems of the Immortal Six Hundred began in June 1864 when Jones transferred 50 Union soldiers to Charleston, South Carolina, which was under Union artillery bombardment. Jones informed Foster of the development, hoping that he would stop the bombardment.

But Foster did not stop the bombardment. Instead, he transferred 55 Confederate prisoners to a makeshift Union prison on Morris Island, South Carolina. It remained so until both sides agreed to a prisoner swap.

The swap encouraged Jones to transfer another 600 Union prisoners to Charleston. Again, the Union responded by transferring 600 Confederate prisoners (the Immortal Six Hundred) to Morris Island. No swap was initiated this time. In fact, things only got worse.

More prisoners were brought in to Morris Island prison from Camp Sumter, Georgia, which was under the threat of a Union attack. The prison soon became congested as yellow fever raged through the camp and killed prisoners. Jones ended this by transferring the inmates to other prisons without the approval of his superiors, and the Union responded by transferring the Immortal Six Hundred to Fort Pulaski, Cockspur Island.

The Immortal Six Hundred were in bad shape when they arrived at Fort Pulaski. Many had coughs and diarrhea, and 80 were either dead or hospitalized. A few had escaped or were unaccounted for.

However, conditions did not improve. Food was in short supply, and prisoners made do with unlucky cats and dogs that strayed into the camp. Rations were increased in January 1865, and the prisoners were moved to Fort Delaware in March 1865. Only 465 survived.

World War II

Photo credit: warhistoryonline.com

The Rheinwiesenlager was a series of 19 prisoner-of-war camps built along the Rhine River toward the end of World War II. They were constructed in April 1945 to hold two to three million German soldiers who had surrendered to the Allies as they moved into mainland Germany.

Prisoners in the Rheinwiesenlager were kept in conditions way below those required by the Geneva Convention. The prisons were overcrowded, food and water was scarce, and shelter was nonexistent. The Allies also restricted the Red Cross from inspecting the camps.

The Allies justified this by labeling the prisoners “Disarmed Enemy Forces” and not “Prisoners of War.” That way, they claimed that the inmates were not prisoners and not covered by the Geneva Convention. In 1989, writer James Bacque released a book titled Other Losses in which he claimed that General Dwight Eisenhower deliberately starved the German prisoners. Bacque claimed that this led to the deaths of over one million prisoners.

The first part is true. Eisenhower did not want to give the prisoners more food than the civilians displaced by the war. The second part, however, remains controversial. Stephen E. Ambrose claims that not more than 56,000 German prisoners died in the camps.